Labor unions have deepened their influence on the city’s politics yet again, this time through positions in New Haven’s Democratic Party.
Union-backed candidates won six of the seven contested races for seats on the Democratic Town Committee last Tuesday, continuing a trend of organized labor’s growing local political clout in the city that began with last fall’s aldermanic elections. At the first meeting of the committee Wednesday night, members handed Ward 3 Alderwoman Jackie James an easy victory in her bid to chair the committee, which consists of two ward committee co-chairs from each of the city’s 30 wards, effectively placing her at the helm of the city’s political machine.
James, who won re-election as alderwoman in the fall with the help of Yale’s politically active labor unions, UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, beat out Wooster Square activist Chris Randall and former alderwoman Esther Armmand by a commanding margin, receiving 48 votes to Randall’s five and Armmand’s four. James also serves as president pro tempore of the Board of Aldermen.
In New Haven — which in a recent count had 45,555 registered Democrats, 2,456 registered Republicans and 15,946 unaffiliated voters — the Democratic Town Committee, a unit of the national Democratic Party, is the city’s most powerful political organization. In even-numbered years, the committee’s chair is responsible for working with federal and statewide campaigns to manage voter turnout and run the “ground game” for the party in New Haven during elections, former Ward 1 Co-Chair Amalia Skilton ’13 said. When the focus returns to city politics during odd-numbered years, Skilton said the chair becomes New Haven’s “kingmaker,” convincing people to run in local elections and keeping tabs on political developments citywide. The committee also elects delegates for state primary elections.
Last week’s ward committee co-chair elections resulted in a Democratic Town Committee in which more than half of its 60 members are newcomers to the organization. This includes Ward 1’s Ben Crosby ’13 and Nia Holston ’14, who ran unopposed, and Ward 22’s Josef Goodman ’14 and Jayuan Carter, a lab assistant at the Yale School of Medicine, who defeated Gina Phillips and former aldermanic candidate Cordelia Thorpe.
The two co-chairs from each ward form a ward committee, composed of residents of the ward, that serves primarily to endorse aldermanic candidates. Co-chairs
are also responsible for political organizing at the ward level: keeping voter files up to date, registering residents to vote and planning for aldermanic primaries.
Goodman, who volunteered for the campaigns of Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison and Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12 in the fall, said Morrison, one of a slate of labor-backed aldermen who won their first terms last fall, approached him about running for co-chair in January. She told him that the way Phillips and Thorpe had run the Ward 22 Committee was “kind of a sham,” complaining that they have done little to engage the student population within the ward, which includes four of Yale’s residential colleges, and have largely given committee seats to friends and family.
James is not the only labor-backed official in the Democratic Town Committee’s new leadership. Gwen Mills, a Yale union organizer who ran last fall’s successful labor-backed aldermanic challenges, was elected treasurer in an unopposed election.
At the meeting Wednesday, Goodman said candidates did not give speeches, adding it “wasn’t the most informed of processes.” While he said there were complaints of a power grab by James, the vast majority of ward co- chairs voted for James’s recommended slate of candidates.
“I trusted a lot of the people that were telling me to vote for these people; I trusted their judgment,” Goodman said.
James and the other newly elected officials pledged to revitalize the Democratic Party in New Haven by bringing new faces and young people into politics. They also pledged that the Democratic Town Committee, which has typically thrown its support behind Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s re-election campaigns, will maintain independence from City Hall and the city’s old political establishment.
Also elected were vice-chairs Carmen Reyes and former Ward 8 Alderman Vinnie Mauro, assistant treasurer Josh Vega, secretary Rose DeMatteo and assistant secretary Lateefah Williams.